An Open Letter of Thanks to Chana Bloch for “The Little Ice Age”

Dear Chana Bloch:

I am writing to share my admiration for your work and, specifically, for
“The Little Ice Age.”  It’s very kind of you to let people read the poem on your web site after its appearance in the Spring 2011 issue of Field.  (Readers can also access the poem through EBSCO.)  I also admire that you’ve posted an MP3 of yourself reading the poem; what a great way to help writers understand the difference between the written and spoken word.

You’ve done an awful lot of good for the poetry community and young writers are certainly advised to emulate the spirit in which you share your work and your thoughts.  I happen to be a writing teacher (of far less renown, of course) and you must get a great satisfaction out of knowing how many thousands of writers have improved their craft because of your generosity.

As for your work, I love poems about history and science.  I’ve written a few myself, though I don’t think any have been published.  “The Little Ice Age” consists of two five-line stanzas.  In the first, you paint the picture of what human existence was like during that event.  In the second, you describe a beautiful and unintended consequence of that massive chill.

I love the way that you populate that first stanza with those two-word stings in the midst of the two longer sentences.  Each of these phrases (but one) have the same construction: noun + verb.

Europe shivered

Rivers froze

crops failed

people chewed

people starved

This technique seems effective to me for at least a couple reasons.  The “noun + verb” is very direct and very clear.  Yes, these were the terrible consequences of the cooling across Europe.  Alternate sentence constructions may not be as direct and convincing.  Further, the “noun + verb” settles the matter.  You’re letting us know that the poem is not part of a debate between climatologists; you’re just telling us what happened.  Further still, the simple construction puts emphasis on those sad and powerful verbs.  “Shivered,” “froze,” “failed,” “starved” …these are generally not happy verbs.

Goodness, and you use such a wonderful verb in the second stanza to describe the sound of a Stradivarius.  Here is where you can hear a Stradivarius “cry” (albeit filtered through digital compression):

I admire the overall construction of the poem, as well.  Two stanzas.  Cause, then effect.  The harshness of the climate resulted in the kinds of trees that Stradivarius needed to create his instruments.  “The Little Ice Age” teaches scribblers such as myself how each stanza should contribute to the poem as a whole.

The baseball season is nearly upon us.  A pitcher can’t think of each pitch as an isolated throw; he must decide what to throw based upon a vast number of factors.  One of a pitchers big weapons is a change in velocity.  Justin Verlander, for example, will blow a 100-mph fastball right past a batter, then drop an 81-mph changeup.  The hitter doesn’t have a chance.

How does this relate to your poem?  I admire the way that your first stanza sets up your second in the same way that a pitcher on my team causes a batter’s knees to “buckle.”

Thanks again for your poem and for all you have done for other writers of poetry and prose.  I wish you the best in 2014 and beyond.

Ken.

 

 

 

Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:

  • Employ a simple “noun + verb” construction to solidify points that aren’t up for debate in your piece.  This technique ensures your work will have brevity and allows you to steer focus to what really matters to you.
  • Consider the function of your stanzas in the context of the work as a whole.  Stanzas are to poems what paragraphs are to prose.  Each of the smaller parts should contribute meaningfully to the operation of the larger machine.  Follow a fastball with a slider or vice versa.

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